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On June 8, 1968, Leonard Bernstein conducted members of the New York Philharmonic in Gustav Mahler’s “Adagietto” from Symphony No. 5 for the funeral of Senator Robert F. Kennedy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Sirhan Sirhan had shot Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles three days earlier. RFK’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination had lasted eight-two days.
“New York was a strange sight,” Lady Bird Johnson recounted. “The streets were lined with people who stood silent, motionless . . . the voiceless chorus of a Greek tragedy. St. Patrick’s was filled to overflow with four thousand people.”
At 4 a.m. on the day after the funeral, Jacqueline Kennedy wrote Bernstein a seven-page, handwritten letter of gratitude. Her successor as First Lady, Lady Bird, described “an expression of the utmost passion, of torment,” in Bernstein’s rendering of the Mahler work.
Bernstein was always drawn to Mahler. After JFK’s assassination in 1963, he led a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection) in tribute to the fallen President. The 1960s was a decade of killings that rocked the nation. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on April 4, 1968; Malcom X in 1965; John F. Kennedy and civil rights activist Medgar Evers both in 1963. In music, solace.
Why Mahler? is the name of a short, engaging book by British music critic Norman Lebrecht. To go deeper, read Jens Malte Fischer’s Mahler biography. And to widen the lens, read our friend Joe Horowitz’s new novel, The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York.
Mahler was by all accounts a force. Alma Schindler wrote during her courtship with Gustav, “The fellow is made entirely of oxygen. When you get near him, you get burnt.” Alma Mahler—a composer in her own right—became her husband’s manager, copyist, editor, and muse. Gustav dedicated his Eighth Symphony to his wife (“Every note,” he told her, “was directed to you”).
The Mahlers lived in New York. They spent three years there with their daughter Anna, from 1908 to 1911. The family’s first residence was an eleventh floor suite at the Hotel Majestic overlooking Central Park (115 Central Park West). Alma moved back to New York years later. She loved New York. “I had [often] given my soul a holiday and fled to that city of light,” she said. From 1952 to her death in 1964, Alma lived in a flat on the third floor at 120 East 73rd Street.
Gustav died in Vienna in summer 1911, age fifty, at a time when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was coming apart at the seams. He came originally from Bohemia, his family a part of a Jewish, German-speaking minority.
Leonard Bernstein was attached to Mahler, an attachment that affected and inspired family and friends. In her memoir, Bernstein’s daughter Jamie recounts how she and her teenage girlfriend went to see her father conduct Mahler’s Fifth in New York:
During the Adagietto music, the most achingly beautiful music we had ever heard, Linn fell apart. I’d never seen her cry over anything before. . . . She never did explain why that music got to her the way it did—but that was how we discovered the point of music.
Here’s Bernstein in detail on the “Adagietto:”
And so we come to the final incredible page, and this page, I think, is the closest we have ever come, in any work of art, to experiencing the very act of dying, of giving it all up. The slowness of the page is terrifying: Adagissimo, [Mahler] writes, the slowest possible musical direction; and then langsam (slow), ersterbend(dying away), zögernd (hesitating); and if all those were not enough to indicate the near stoppage of time, he adds äussert langsam (extremely slow) in the very last bars. It is terrifying, and paralyzing, as the strands of sound disintegrate. We hold on to them, hovering between hope and submission. And one by one, these spidery strands connecting us to life melt away, vanish from our fingers even as we hold them. . . . We lose it all. But in letting go, we have gained everything.
On June 8, 1968, a twenty-one-car train carried the body of New York Senator and presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy from New York’s Penn Station to Washington D.C.’s Union Station. The journey took a long eight hours, with as many as two million people crowding platforms along the way to pay respects. RFK had started in a different place politically, but by 1968 he was trying to unite the White and Black working class. He traveled to poor regions of the United States and supported striking farm workers. Robert F. Kennedy is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Leonard Bernstein, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, is buried in the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. He lies with a copy of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony across his heart.
Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.
Image: Crowds gathered at a North Philadelphia train station for the funeral train of Robert F. Kennedy, by Paul Fusco for LOOK Magazine. (Paul Fusco / Library of Congress, LC-L901A-68-3791, no. 148)
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